Some Gadget Ideas for Christmas Shopping

Here are some gadgets I’ve used over the past year that I’d recommend as presents for people into that sort of thing:

Chamberlain MyQ WiFi Garage Door Opener – This allows you to open and close your garage door from your phone. And check whether your garage door is open or closed. I’ve found it useful when I leave the house but can’t remember for sure if I closed the garage door. I’ve also used it to let people working on my house into the garage while I was out. It took around 30 minutes to install. The only thing that’s not 100% about this is the app, which is slow to open. But:

Wink Hub. – A Wink Hub allows you to control a large number of WiFi connected devices from a single app that worked quite well. You connect this to your WiFi network then tell it what WiFi connected devices you’ve got, such as the garage door opener. It also supports notifications, so you can see when your garage door is opened, or door locks, motion detectors, etc. And, it makes it easy to set up automated tasks, like turning things on/off at certain times of day. A lot of devices from a wide variety of companies can work with the Wink hub, which is nice. You don’t have to worry about buying this, then only being able to buy, say, Wink deadbolts for your house.

PWR+ Cell Phone Charger. – This is a Mini USB charger, so will work with most Android phones. The beauty of this is it charges your phone around 4X faster than the one that ships with phones. Basically, it’s ridiculous that cell phones don’t ship with chargers like this.

EyeFi Mobi SD Card – Assuming you still use a camera other than the one on your phone, this SD card connects to your phone and auto-syncs photos from your phone to your camera as you take them. You can then upload or email those pics from your phone without ever needing to take the card out of the camera.

Remembering Reusable Grocery Bags with IFTTT

Remembering to bring reusable bags into grocery stores is not one of my strengths. But, I figured out a way to make that happen. Geofencing grocery stores using IFTTT, then sending myself reminders. By the way, I don’t think IFTTT supports doing this on other phones, but there are other ways to do it. There are also apps that can be used to do this on Android phones, but I’d rather use a cloud service for this so I don’t have to recreate these every time I get a new phone.

For example, here’s a recipe I created on IFTTT that sends me a text message to remember to bring in bags when I arrive at Longfellow Market:

IFTTT Breakdown

These are really easy to set up. You just zoom in to the location where you’d like to have an alert triggered. I moved the range to the south a bit after getting some false-positives while driving by Longfellow Market on Lake Street.


Then set the message you’d like to receive:

IFTTT Message

The messages automatically pop up on my phone and watch when I enter that area:

IFTTT on Pebble Watch

What this doesn’t do is remind me to put the bags back in the car after bringing groceries home. That’s another step.

Another IFTTT recipe I like using is to adjust my phone’s volume to vibrate mode when I arrive home. This could be done based on a geocode, like the example above, but it can also be triggered based on the name of the WiFi network I attach to.

Small things like this make my days slightly smoother.

Glen Taylor’s StarTribune: Crunching Minneapolis’ False Alarm Costs

Imagine how you’d feel if you figured out a way to save 26% of the time your employees spend dealing with worthless stuff only to read an article claiming that you’re being wasteful. Here’s an example of Glen Taylor’s StarTribune reporting on the Minneapolis Police Department’s handling of false alarm responses at businesses in the city.

Alejandra Matos has an article in the StarTribune about the Minneapolis’ costs of dealing with false alarms at businesses. It contains incredibly poorly supported comparisons of costs to Minneapolis’ neighbor. Is this an example of the Glen Taylor ownership era at the StarTribune? Misleading people to justify cutting government costs seems pretty GOP to me.

Matos provides background on Minneapolis’ false alarm response costs:

[Minneapolis] used to give alarm users two free false alarms in a year and charge $200 for the third, with each additional alarm costing an additional $100. But heavier fees were implemented in 2007 after the city estimated it was spending more than $800,000 to respond to them. In 2006, police responded to 15,600 false alarms.

The article seems to suggest that Minneapolis’ false alarm fees are ridiculous, while St Paul’s are far more fair because they’re cheaper for businesses that waste extraordinarily large amounts of police time (yes, you read that right).

It looks like Minneapolis spent $800,000 responding to 15,600 false alarms at businesses operating in the city in 2006.

If I divide $800k by 15,600, I come up with an average false alarm response cost of $51.28. The problem the city appears to have been trying to address wasn’t that it spent $800k on false alarms. The problem is that the costs of dealing with false alarms exceeded the costs businesses generating them were paying. This isn’t a gross cost issue. It’s a rate problem that the StarTribune didn’t explain.

The article continues:

When an alarm is triggered, the alarm company must try calling the key holder, often the home or business owner, twice before they ask for police response. If that person can’t be reached, the police usually send two squad cars to respond to the alarm. If the officers find nothing wrong, they can designate a false alarm.

Is it just me, or do these numbers seem extraordinarily reasonable? What does it cost to have a plumber or Geek Squad show up at your house? The last time I called a plumber for an emergency it was a lot more than $51.28 with a 12 hour response time. The last time I called Geek Squad, the costs were more than double that, and that was well before 2006. Yet, Minneapolis sends TWO squad cars with at least two cops to address an active alarm and the cost is less than $26/person? I’m pretty sure that the cost per hour per police officer is at least $50/hour after equipment, training, and benefits, so these cops are somehow responding to alarms and writing up their cases in under 30 minutes? That seems unlikely.

The article mentions that the cost of clerical processing of an alarm statement alone can be $27. Yet we can send multiple cars with fully equipped, trained officers for less than $26 per cop per call?

To me, based on the information presented in this article, it sounds like Minneapolis was severely underestimating the cost of responding to alarms in 2006.

I would like compare the $800k figure to what Minneapolis is bringing in on average now after updating their fee structure, but the StarTribune didn’t provide that information. The article does mention that response calls have dropped:

False alarms have dropped 24 percent in the six years since the stiffer penalties were put in place. Although city officials say they are pleased by that, local business owners are not.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but a 24% drop in false alarms sounds like a $206,000 savings in otherwise wasted police time based on the reported 2006 false alarm response cost figure. You may have a hard time finding that $206,000 savings in the StarTribune’s column because it’s not mentioned.

Matos many paragraphs explaining that fees have gone up in Minneapolis while they’re cheaper in St Paul (under certain circumstances if you read closely enough).

Matos offered an explanation of St Paul’s system:

St. Paul requires all alarm users to purchase a yearly permit for $27.

Ricardo Cervantes, director of St. Paul’s Department of Safety and Inspections, says this system anticipates that alarm users will have at least one mishap. St. Paul gives residents and business owners two free false alarms, then charges $35 for the third. Adding all the fees together in one year, a seventh false alarm will cost a user $427. In Minneapolis, the cumulative cost would be $2,130.

Matos didn’t explain how much St Paul brings in through those yearly permits, how that compares to Minneapolis, and how that breaks down on a per-false alarm basis. And, she didn’t offer any quotes from business owners in St Paul who has to pay a yearly fee of $27 even when they have no false alarms.

What did we learn from this article? Nothing. To learn something we’d need comparisons of 2006 numbers vs 2014 in Minneapolis. Or Minneapolis’ numbers vs. St Paul’s. Since no actual, honest, relative comparison was presented, I can only assume that the goal was to sell a bias for Glen Taylor that’s not supported by the numbers.

Basically, her editor – assuming their was one – wasted the StarTribune’s reader’s time with a handful of non-apples to apples comparisons that give the perception that Minneapolis’ fees are outrageous compared to St Paul’s without actually proving that point. Was misleading readers the editorial goal of Glen Taylor’s StarTribune with this article? The StarTribune was better than this article.

Lyft and UberX Receiving Permission to Legally Discriminate

If you don’t own a smartphone in Minneapolis, keep an eye out for pink mustaches on cars. Those cars are driven by people who will soon be able to legally discriminate against you. No matter how much you want or need a ride, they won’t be allowed to pick you up:

Despite a push for one ordinance to cover both industries, the final language delineates clear differences. Only taxis can pick up passengers who hail them on the street…

Here’s a breakdown of smartphone ownership rates from Pew:

Pew Research on Smartphone Demographics

Lyft and UberX have amazingly good lobbyists. They’re managing to legally deny service to poor and poorly educated people.

Critics of the proposal said that Lyft and Uber, now known as “transportation network companies,” will . . . discriminate against certain passengers.

Like, the majority of people making less than $30k/year.

The proposal’s sponsor, Jacob Frey, countered that the city will audit where the companies have been accepting and denying rides. Plus, he noted, taxis are already discriminating.

This sounds like a great deal for Lyft and UberX. They can’t be accused of denying rides from the majority of people making under $30k/yr because they’re not capable of requesting rides since they don’t have smartphones.

“As a cab driver, I cannot raise my rates,” said driver Fred Anderson. “And I’m obligated to take all customers unlike [transportation network companies]. This is not a level playing field.”

Sounds like Fred Anderson and his fellow drivers need UberX and Lyft’s deep pockets in order to hire better lobbyists so they can discriminate too. Or, UberX and Lyft could be held to the taxi standards and already exist.

The city will impose a license fee of $35,000 a year on transportation network companies, and another $10,000 as a surcharge if they do not have handicap-accessible vehicles.

Here’s a breakdown of the licensing costs for traditional taxis in Minneapolis:

Minneapolis Taxi Licenses

As I read that, it sounds like the annual licensing costs for a taxi include:
$59 taxi drivers license renewal
$475 per vehicle
$135 per inspection
$669 per year total

Assuming Lyft or UberX have more than 52 drivers, the differences in licensing costs appears to be another example of the advantage of having good lobbyists on your well-funded side.

Listen up, Poors. If you want access to all forms of government regulated transportation in our world-class city, you’re going to need a smartphone with a data plan. We’re not discriminating. That’s just the way it is because world-class cities welcome innovators.

LRT Speeds Vary by Station Pairs

Is the new Green Line slow? Well, that depends. Where did you start and where did you end?

Bob Collins has a post up on Newscut about his decision to NOT take the Green Line from the 10th Street Station in St Paul (the 2nd stop on the line heading west) to a Twins game (the last two stops on the Blue Line). With four in the car on the 4th of July when there is hardly any traffic between cities, that’s a really easy choice.

Talking about time time it takes to traverse the entire LRT line seems overblown to me since that use case is so limited. Are there really that many people who live at or east of Union Depot in St Paul who want to get to Target Field or points north? I’m sure it happens, but must be a small fraction of all rides, assuming other 22 stations have any popularity at all.

To illustrate this, I used to trace out quick estimates of distances between each station on the Green Line and divides them by the scheduled time for a westbound train (weekday, arriving before 9am) to get a feel for how fast the train moves throughout its route. This isn’t a measure of max speed, but average speed between stations:

Average Green Line LRT Speeds between Stations

What this tells me is you’ll experience diminishing returns on commute speeds when you’re in the downtown core of either city. This makes sense. We see the same thing any vehicle operating at street level.

The easiest way to shave 17 minutes of the commute between downtowns (and increase the train’s speed by nearly 50%) is to define the commute between downtowns as when one leaves the first and arrives at the second (Robert St Station in St Paul to Downtown East in Minneapolis).

This is even more pronounced on the Blue Line, which has higher speeds between stations outside of downtown:

Average Blue Line LRT Speeds between Stations

Putting the station speeds of the Green and Blue lines on the same chart helps illustrate how much faster the Blue Line is over most of its route compared to the Green Line. (Northbound Blue vs Westbound Green with the same set of stops once they merge in downtown Minneapolis).

Green vs Blue Line Average Speeds by Station

Personally, when I travel on an LRT to downtown Minneapolis, I hop off at “one of the state’s largest corporate welfare projects off all time station”, then hop on a NiceRide for the rest of my trip. That’s much faster than the 6 MPH average speed (10MPH) of either train through downtown. For example, I can NiceRide to Brit’s far faster from Downtown East than taking the train to Nicollet then walking or NiceRiding from there. Google Maps seems to agree with me on this. They estimate 16 minutes for LRT to Nicollet followed by walking:

LRT from Metrodome to Brit's

Compared to 8 minutes biking:

Biking from Metrodome to Brit's

But, the bigger takeaway to me is that trains are painfully slow in downtown cores when they’re built at street level. If they’re above or below ground, they don’t have to compete with everything else going on at street level, which is better for everyone. At this point, I suppose we’re stuck with the decisions we’ve made for the next generation or two. Longer term, perhaps we’ll straighten things out?

And, if I was going to park and ride to Twins or Saints games from the suburbs, I’d probably hop off the Cretin/Vandalia exit of I-94 and ditch my car near The Dubliner. That combined free parking, cutting the LRT trip in half, and provides a cool spot to drown postgame sorrows. That neighborhood is also home to some new craft brewpubs worth checking out, including Bang Brewing. Strategery.

Watch Lyft Redlining in Minneapolis

Considering the criticism that taxis received for not being willing to pick up individuals based on race or fares in this StarTribune article, it seems like a good time to point out that Lyft is redlining entire neighborhoods of Minneapolis.

If a taxi is going to operate in Minneapolis, it’s expected to serve the entire city rather than cherry pick certain neighborhoods. But, “disruptive” companies like Lyft seem to take a different approach to serving the city by only serving portions of it. Watch movie online The Transporter Refueled (2015)

Here are two animations that illustrate this. Notice that there are Lyft cars available for pickup when I tell the Lyft app that I’m south of Dowling. But, if I move myself north of Dowling, no cars are available:


Lyft Redlining in North Minneapolis

In Northeast Minneapolis, 30th Ave NE appears to be Lyft’s redline (note the message switch from a car being 12 minutes away to “available” [but not hailable]):

Lyft Redlining in Northeast Minneapolis

Imagine what would happen to a licensed Minneapolis taxi company if they refused to serve customers north of Dowling Ave? Why is Lyft any different?

Forbes reported in April that Lyft raised $250 million. It sounds like it’s quite lucrative to outsource drivers, cars, and insurance coverage while cherry picking neighborhoods to serve.

Loosening Minneapolis Taxi Regulations – Still Tougher than Uber Standards

Minneapolis has a list of proposed changes to current taxi regulations that may be long-overdue. But, considering what Uber and similar services are allowed to do, this particular provision seems rather strange:

Reducing the total cabs a company must possess, from 15 to five.

That provision also mentions that the 5+ cars must be a similar color scheme.

So, if Uber can own zero cars with no requirements over color scheme while taxis must own at least 5 cars of a similar color scheme, it seems like the changes in regulations would still allow outstate startups to cherry pick fares in Minneapolis while sucking 20% of each fare out of our community. That’s a great deal for Uber, but seems like an unfair playing field for our local taxi businesses.

Taxis Acting like Uber gets Taxis in Trouble

The StarTribune ran an article over the weekend looking at how difficult it can be to hail a cab in downtown Minneapolis if you’re looking for a short ride or aren’t white.

For example, a group of black people who wanted to go two mile ride had to deal with this crap:

One driver finally took the group, but he started his meter at nearly $15, instead of the required $2.50.

But, as Eric Roper (one of the article’s authors) pointed out, the illegal price gouging by taxis was still less than Uber’s price gouging:

I don’t know of any examples of Uber proactively discriminating against potential riders based on race. Instead, they’re equal opportunity discriminators based on price. If you’re not willing to pay nearly $40 for a 2-mile ride, race has nothing to do with it. But, if a city councilmember were to look at the race breakdown of who Uber actually serves, we’d probably see similar results by different means.

For example, Uber does a good job serving people like failed Minneapolis Democrats Exposed blogger, Andy Post:

Clearly, GOP operatives working for a gubernatorial candidate like Marty Seifert shouldn’t have to interact with the common taxi driver.

I can see why the GOP would like a service that ignores unions, government regulations, people with disabilities, and people who can’t afford to spend $35 on a 2-mile ride:

But, that doesn’t mean it’s in the best interest of Minneapolis residents to allow a company to blatantly disregard regulations meant to protect passengers (ex. proper insurance, ADA compliant vehicles). And, it’s not clear how it’s in the best interest of Minneapolis and Minnesota residents to have 20% of every fare sucked out of the state and into the pockets of companies like Uber and Lyft.

By the way, this doesn’t mean that I’m anti-Uber or similar dispatching businesses. We just need to remind ourselves that they’re not above the law and have the resources to comply with existing taxi laws. If those laws are antiquated, let’s change them for all taxi services rather than allow start-ups to disregard those laws in order to cherry pick fares through price and technology.

2005 Iraq War Justifications Revisited

Nearly nine years ago, I wrote a post on this blog criticizing a letter to the editor I read that justified the 2.5 years we’d spent blowing up Iraq while losing 1,914 American soldiers’ lives (at the time). That post was about the continually evolving justifications for the war that didn’t need to be fought in the first place.

I don’t get around to reading blog posts from 2005 that often, so it’s interesting to see if what I was thinking then has stood the test of time or not.

In this case, a letter to the editor writer, Duke Trana, seemed to be justifying the continued losses of American soldiers’ lives on the Pottery Barn Rule. Obviously, if you never walked into Pottery Barn in the first place, you wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of breaking things in their store (no, that’s not really their policy).

But, what’s most interesting about this case is that the letter to the editor writer, Duke Trana, popped back up with his own opinion on his letter from nearly nine years ago:

Oh look! Obama pulled out of Iraq and they are falling into civil war….DUH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This is exactly what I wanted to point out almost 10 years ago, Ed.

The current president has been trying to get us out of a mess that the previous president justified based on a series of lies to Americans. Things already weren’t going well due to the hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of American lives spent by George W Bush fighting a war that didn’t need to be fought in the first place. It turns out that paying for Pottery Barn breakage isn’t cheap, and the costs don’t stop when you leave office.

At this point, I decided to determine whether the person I picked on nearly 9 years ago was a rational human being.

It seems like both the downfall and rise have been overblown. And, gay marriage seems to have done quite well since October 2012.

Or, this one from 2010:

No problem. Just let oil continue to spill into the Gulf of Mexico. That beats providing health insurance to a larger percentage of Americans.

Or this one, where apparently foreign countries deserve lenience when polluting American waters:

It turns out that responsible oil drilling – at any cost – is a big no-no for Duke:

Apparently, over-regulating involves regulating industries to a degree where people aren’t killed in the line of work. That’s burdensome.

And then there’s this:

And this:

Duke Trana is a self-described FOX News consumer. Still, it’s surprising how well he seems to fit Roger Ailes’ audience profile. I suppose it saves time if one can solve all of one’s irrational fantasies in one place.

A Pebble Watch with Runkeeper is a Nice GPS Watch

Here’s something for runner dorks like myself.

A friend of mine used to say that you’re not running if you’re not going faster than 8-minute miles OR wearing headphones. By both of those two measures, I was definitely jogging today:

Pebble Watch with Runkeeper

I’ve experimented a bit with some tech options to distract me while running. The current setup is working fairly well. I normally run with my phone, with earbuds, listening to podcasts, with Runkeeper tracking my route/pace/time. And, with a Pebble watch, I can see real-time workout data without turning on my phone and looking at my phone while running (you probably need to be running 7-sevens for that to still be considered running).

Before arriving at the Pebble angle, I had a Garmin Forerunner 10 watch, which didn’t give me the data I was looking for. There were two main issues:

1. I couldn’t hear the mile markers while wearing earbuds.

2. I had to toggle between screens to see the data I was most interested in seeing (time/distance/pace).

A third issue is that it often took a long time to find a GPS signal at the start of workouts.

The Pebble itself isn’t a GPS. It just detects when Runkeeper is activated, then streams the data to the watch over Bluetooth. It works great. And, the price is nearly the same.

My Pebble is 6 months old now, and is showing some signs of wear. It either scratches easily or I should never buy a really expensive watch. Probably a bit of both. But, it gets the job done.